Five possible by-elections this year should throw plenty of spice into the Coalition mix
Published 23/04/2014 | 02:30
By-elections – over the decades, they have been to governments what the Ides of March were to Julius Caesar – something to be distinctly wary of.
It is not so much that, before 2011, no government had won a by-election for 30 years. Many of those losses were of little consequence – reversed within a year or two at the subsequent general election.
But some, particularly when there was a series of by-election setbacks, proved hugely significant. Two such losses in his home county of Cork in 1979 marked the beginning of the end for Jack Lynch's tenure as Taoiseach – just a couple of years after leading his party to its biggest majority.
And in 1994, Fianna Fail's failure to win any of the four by-elections held that year shifted the Dail arithmetic to such an extent that Labour was able to jump ship and coalesce with Fine Gael and Democratic Left instead.
More recently, in late 2010, Fianna Fail's crushing defeat in the Donegal South West by-election sounded the death knell for the FF/Green coalition.
The bad news for its successor is that there could be as many as five by-elections between now and the end of the year.
Two are certain, following the resignation of Patrick Nulty in Dublin West and the sad passing of Nicky McFadden, who represented Longford-Westmeath.
Two more seem probable. First, assuming a Cabinet member becomes European commissioner, there will need to be a by-election in that minister's seat. And, with Brian Hayes 1/12 with the bookies to take a European Parliament seat in Dublin, it is probably safe to assume there will be a by-election in Dublin South-West also.
In the South constituency, meanwhile, Fine Gael's rising star Simon Harris is 4/6 to win a seat, suggesting a fifth by-election may be required, in Wicklow.
That would be a lot of by-elections for any government to endure (you have to go back to 1970 for the last time there were so many).
Such are the Coalition's huge numbers, there are no concerns about the potential dilution of its majority. But bad defeats in four or five by-elections could still have a profound impact on government stability and on Eamon Gilmore's leadership of Labour.
That is why it seems likely that the Coalition will look to avoid holding all the by-elections on the one day in the autumn. Enda Kenny is due to formally decide this week, but it looks as though the Government will move the writs for the Dublin West and Longford Westmeath by-elections next week when the Dail resumes – with a view to holding them on the same day as the European and local elections.
Longford-Westmeath is the one by-election the Government should win. It seems likely that a member of the McFadden family will run – her sister Gabrielle is a sitting councillor. Given the enormous affection and regard for Nicky, Fine Gael will be strong favourites to hold the seat.
The rumours have already started about Philip Reynolds – son of Albert – potentially standing. But the successful businessman has previously resisted all overtures and it looks a long shot. If he were to run, however, it would give Fianna Fail a serious chance of winning the seat. It looks more likely that a member of the Lenihan-O'Rourke political dynasty could emerge as the party's choice.
Aengus O'Rourke – son of Mary – is a councillor in Athlone and would be a very credible candidate. The rivalry between Mary O'Rourke and Albert Reynolds in the constituency was legendary – typified by the famous 'Battle for Tang church' in 1987. Sadly for Fianna Fail, it seems unlikely to be regenerated this time around.
Dublin West is far harder to call, other than saying Labour will not regain the seat it won in the by-election there nearly three years ago. It will be doing well to secure fourth place.
Fine Gael performed badly in that by-election, but will have a stronger candidate this time around – most probably former world champion Eamonn Coghlan. But the bronze medal position seems the most likely outcome for him.
That leaves a straight fight between Fianna Fail and the Socialist Party for the seat.
David McGuinness came a very credible second to Nulty in 2011. There have been suggestions he might not have the numbers to win the Fianna Fail convention. There has also been talk about Brian Lenihan's sister Anita running. But the word from party figures is that McGuinness will be the candidate.
However, while he has a strong local presence, Fianna Fail figures privately believe winning a Dublin by-election is a big ask and identify Ruth Coppinger of the Socialists as the favourite.
The reasoning is that this is perceived as a left-wing seat. Sinn Fein and Labour are more likely to transfer to Coppinger. And while Fine Gael is more unpopular than it was in 2011, a stronger candidate such as Coghlan could eat into the McGuinness vote.
But there are rumours of a private poll showing McGuinness taking the seat and Dublin West voters might not like the idea of having two Socialist Party seats in the constituency. It looks like a very close race.
The two by-elections would certainly add spice to the local and European contests on Friday, May 23. It promises to be a very interesting weekend of counting.
Shane Coleman presents the Sunday Show on Newstalk 106-108FM